Opportunity is a word that is weightlessly thrown around by bankers, job agencies and shady property developers. You know how they play it. The noun-turned-preposition gets painted on a four-story billboard across the street from your office, every popped letter complimenting the bleached white smile of an all too beautiful businesswoman cradling a diploma or certificate or some other half-baked indicator of her success, peering down at you while you shift around anxiously in a cramped cubicle wondering if your ‘opportunity’ is tucked under that stack of overdue reports and incomplete time-sheets. It has become a test, a barb; a way to shift a person’s perspective into buying a luxury car or investing forty thousand into cryptocurrency.
S U R V I V E have been handed the opportunity of a lifetime. In an industry flooded with retrowave and future-synth talent, attempting to make a name for yourself under the neon glow of the recent ’80s pastiche is death by uniform. Over the last decade, hundreds of artists have been tossing together the same sounds, same colours and same aesthetic in an effort to find the same fame Kavinsky and Carpenter Brut carved a trail to. S U R V I V E weren’t late to the game, but if it wasn’t for a Netflix hit they would be hidden behind shutter shade sunglasses and Magnum PI ‘staches. Two members of the band were responsible for scoring Stranger Things, a sci-fi horror that is making moves on Game of Thrones’ pole position by telling stories of family, community and young love coloured with government conspiracies and demonic underworlds. It’s a show with some serious potential – and the theme’s songwriters are touring off its success.
Unfortunately Sydneysiders must have a fondness for the ‘Skip Intro’ button because the Oxford Art Factory barely hit half capacity on the warm Wednesday night. Testing by dendrochronology, it looked like there were only a few saplings in the crowd – the majority were middle-aged couples on hiatus from their kids, using their monthly night off to catch an alternative band. Spread out around the room with drinks in hand, the motley crew of midweek hopefuls waited patiently for their Korg™ heroes to arrive. Above, a tangled collection of lightbulbs hung from the venue’s rafters, unlit but ready to talk.
The show began with a dull whine, curtains still drawn. Minutes passed before the pitch drapes were parted by a blood-red glow, swamping the crowd in an eerie light, starching faces and contracting pupils while the outline of four backlit figures started to take shape. Each member was standing behind their own podium of synths and mini-moogs, using the analogue keyboards to slowly massage in more layers, overlapping and intertwining their individual sounds until the spotlights above burst bright yellow, blinding the audience alongside a synthesized explosion.
S U R V I V E had introduced themselves.
From here they moved into another winding excursion through low-lit Indiana suburbs, prowling in a hard-bodied Plymouth for easy pickings with one eye left free to watch out for red and blue. The stabbing synth lines again melded into one another in an attempt to whisk Oxford Art’s patrons away from their reality TV daydreams and back to the past, but they were hitting a snag. We had just heard this one, hadn’t we? Well, maybe not. The moogs had been rewired to eek out some extra bass, which was enough to tease a polite sway out of the crowd. There was one pre-fried fan who had his fist in the air as if he was about to be asked to fight the power – unfortunately, his fantasies weren’t leaking out to the rest of us.
The tracklist continued to roll over their predecessors without any distinct differences, moaning out the same unsettling tones that have you clawing the couch’s edge during Stranger Things. Here, live, something was missing. It wasn’t until “Wardenclyffe” vibrated the auditorium with a submerged sub that the tension almost broke, but even then it felt underwhelming; underrepresented compared the goosebumps it draws up on the ‘RR7349’ LP. Maybe the venue wasn’t giving our synth-jockeys the juice they needed. The night closed with the cyclonic “Cutthroat” and the crowd gave S U R V I V E a final applause. Looking around at each other, there were expectant mutterings, as if they kept something from us, as if we were promised more. Taking one last look at the scattered lightbulbs hanging unused from the ceiling, the rabble stepped out into the night.
S U R V I V E have found themselves in no man’s land, the upside down; attempting to make contact with their audience but never quite finding a connection. Their songs aren’t beat-driven, making it impossible to dance to, and they also aren’t insidious enough to hit the tantric sweet spot Explosions In The Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor know so well. Without that extra bite their fans are perpetually on edge, in a state of almost-but-not-quite-there as they gaze expectantly at the stage. And it is really a shame considering the effort they put into keeping it authentic with their gear, refusing to take the shortcuts provided by today’s modern synths.
While this desire to stay committed to the past might find them drowning amongst those who don’t feel the same puritan whip, there are other options. A visual layer to the performance, whether that’s outfits, LEDs or a projected backdrop would go a long way to make sure the wheels continue spinning, and an easy nod to the Stranger Things score would spice things up for their newer fans. Regardless of what they choose to do, they’ll want to do it quick. These types of opportunities don’t knock more than once.
Photo by Jess Gleeson.